Council Of Fire – Snippet 10
An enjoyable way to start the day
Fort Johnson, Colony of New York
As she now often did after realizing she was pregnant, Molly Brant rose earlier than usual and spent some time just wandering through her new home. You could hardly call it a “house,” in the way white people normally used the term. The edifice her Anglo-Irish husband Sir William Johnson had built a decade earlier in the town of Amsterdam was called “Fort Johnson”–and for good reason. The large two-story stone building served Johnson as a combination home, trading center and office for his various affairs, and was surrounded by wooden fortifications.
Fort Johnson had soon become the center for British relations with the Six Nations, especially the Mohawks. During the Crown Point expedition in the summer of 1755, Johnson and his Mohawk allies defeated the French at the battle of Lake George, during the course of which he received a wound from which he had never fully recovered, since the musket ball which lodged in his hip couldn’t be safely removed. The injury stood him in good stead, however, since it added a certain luster to his martial reputation–which had hitherto been nonexistent. Although the battle at Lake George had not been a decisive victory, the war had been going badly that year for the British and they needed a hero.
Enter, William Johnson. King George II made him a baronet and Parliament voted to give him Â£5,000 as a reward for his services. Much more importantly in terms of the future, in January of 1756 the British government made Johnson the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies. This position was a military one, allowing him to report directly to the government in London–which meant he would not be subject to the rulings and restrictions imposed by provincial governments, which so often hamstrung the activities of officials assigned to deal with the native inhabitants.
Between the new post and his longstanding existing relations with the Six Nations, Johnson rapidly became one of the most powerful political figures in the colony of New York. And that position also led to his marriage to Molly Brant.
Johnson had been in a longstanding common-law marriage with a German immigrant by the name of Catherine Weisenberg, with whom he had three children. She had died recently and given his changed position in life; he’d sought a new wife among the Mohawks.
His interest and attention had soon settled on Molly, since he’d been friends with her stepfather Brant Kanagaradunkwa, a Mohawk sachem belonging to the Turtle clan, for years. She was quite a bit younger than he was–in her early twenties compared to his mid-forties–but neither of them saw that as an obstacle. Both the English aristocracy and the Iroquois approached marriage as a practical matter, not a romantic one.
Her Indian names were Konwatsi’tsiaienni, her birth name, and the name Degonwadonti, given to her as an adult. But as was true of many Mohawks by the middle of the eighteenth century, she was a Christian and usually went by the name of Molly Brant. The surname came from her stepfather.
Between her Christian Faith, the literacy she’d acquired from the schooling her stepfather had provided for her at a British-run school–her penmanship was excellent–and her position as the stepchild of a sachem, Molly made a suitable match for the ambitious Johnson. And the match was quite acceptable to Molly because the young woman was ambitious herself. She understood full well that her position as the wife of Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, would give her far more influence than anything she could achieve on her own in Mohawk society.
Johnson was an influential figure among the Iroquois as well as the British, especially the Mohawks. He spoke their language and they had adopted him into the tribe and given him the name of Warraghiyagey.
Soon after settling in with her new husband in Fort Johnson, Molly became pregnant with her first child. And found herself wandering through her new home early in the morning, both to admire the structure as well as to consider her now-greatly-expanded prospects in life. All in all, she found it a most enjoyable way to start the day.
Perhaps a bit less enjoyable than usual, this particular day, because both her husband and her younger brother Joseph were absent. Johnson had left some days earlier to visit the Onondaga. Her brother and their stepfather had gone to Canajoharie, also known as the “Upper Castle,” one of the two major towns of the Mohawks.
She missed her brother more than her husband, if the truth be told. Molly’s relationship with Johnson was friendly enough, to be sure. But she felt little of the personal attachment to the older man that she felt for her teenage sibling. She and Joseph had always been close; closer than most brothers and sisters.
She worried about him now more than she had in times past. Joseph had not reached his full manhood yet, but even at the age of sixteen he was more physically powerful and adept than most adult men. Molly thought that made him reckless, at times; not so much because he overestimated his own prowess and skills but because he underestimated those of his opponents, be those adversaries human or animal or–perhaps most dangerous of all–inanimate forces. Be a man or boy ever so strong, he was hopelessly outmatched if he fell into a swiftly moving river headed toward rapids or a waterfall. Or slipped on a wet rock at the edge of a precipice. Or–
She broke off that train of thought. There was no point to it. Joseph would do whatever he would do, and although he heard her advice that didn’t necessarily mean he listened to it. Or the advice of his stepfather or anyone else, for that matter.
She left the big house and entered the compound formed by the palisades which surrounded and protected that building. That building–and several others. Johnson had a sawmill and a blacksmith shop within the walls also, and the quarters for the slaves were in a detached building against the eastern wall of the stockade.
Johnson owned four slaves at the moment: a middle-aged man, along with two younger women, one of whom had a three-year-old son. The two women worked in the house, one as the residence’s cook and the other as an all-purpose maid who helped Molly maintain the place. Cumberland, the man, operated the sawmill and was a skilled blacksmith, although the compound’s smithy was fairly primitive. He regularly badgered Johnson to invest more in it so Cumberland could use his skills to their full extent.
He could get away with that unseemly pestering where most slaves wouldn’t dare because Cumberland had been with Johnson for many years. The two women, Hany and Ruth–Ruth was the cook, and the mother of the child–for only five years or so. Johnson had bought them at the same time. They were cousins, as slaves reckoned these things.
Molly was fairly certain that Cumberland was the father of Ruth’s boy, but she’d never inquired. Whatever the relationship might be between Cumberland and Ruth, there didn’t seem to be any trouble associated with it, so Molly figured the details were none of her concern.
As Johnson’s wife, Molly also held the title of his “housekeeper,” which meant that she was in overall charge of the household and served as its hostess for all public occasions. She also supervised the slaves and the servants; though, of course, not Fort Johnson’s resident lawyer, doctor, and her husband’s personal secretaries. Those were under Johnson’s own management.
Partly because of her innate temperament and partly because she thought it was stupid to do otherwise, she tried as much as possible to rule the household–slaves and servants both–with a light hand. And she’d never seen where being friendly and courteous to subordinates did anyone any harm on either side.
It took her no more than twenty minutes to complete her circuit of the compound. Very few of the servants and none of the slaves were up yet, so Molly was engaged in fewer conversations than she would be later in the day, and the ones she did have were mostly brief. Not much more than simple greetings and well wishes, except for the one she had with Hosea Dowling, who served as Fort Johnson’s chief teamster and hostler. That conversation ran on for several minutes, not because Dowling had anything of any significance to report or discuss but simply because he was a garrulous man by nature.
Molly didn’t mind, and listened patiently to Hosea’s largely aimless musings on the new day and its likely developments. Why not? She could spare the man a few minutes of her time; it wasn’t as if she had any pressing concerns of her own that day.
Eventually Dowling finished. She returned to the house a bit reluctantly, because her footsteps sounded hollow to her–which was a bit silly. Between the comfortable moccasins she was wearing and the fact that she was light-footed anyway, she was barely making any sound at all, even on the stone floor which covered the first level of the house.
The “hollowness” was a product of emotion, not hearing. She missed her brother; and, albeit to a lesser degree, her husband. The worst of it was that the nature of their journeys made it very uncertain when either of them would return.
So be it. She’d always had an independent spirit, since she was a little girl–and she reminded herself that her new position in life gave her plenty of responsibilities to keep her busy.